As a teenager, I had the opportunity to spend two years (1975-1977) in Turkey, where my father, an active-duty Air Force officer, served as part of the Joint United States Military Assistance Advisory Team in the capital of Ankara. It was an exciting time for a number of reasons. First and foremost, experiencing a foreign culture firsthand (we lived among the Turks, not on a military base) was the opportunity of a lifetime. But what made it even more of an experience was the moment in history that these years represented. Turkey, a key NATO ally, had invaded Cyprus in 1974, an act which severely strained U.S.-Turkish relations. When we arrived in Turkey in the fall of 1975, the American flag was not permitted to be flown over the American installation at Balgat Air Base, on the outskirts of Ankara, where the American school and the U.S.-Turkish military logistics support establishment were located. There was one exception: July 4, 1976, when the flag was raised as part of the U.S. bicentennial celebration. But the flag came down the next day.
Everywhere one traveled in Turkey, the visage of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was visible. The “Father of the Turks,” Mustafa Kemal made modern Turkey out of the ruins of the defeated Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War I. A strict believer in a secular constitutional republic, Mustafa Kemal tasked Turkey’s military with the defense of constitutional governance. Twice prior to our arrival in Turkey, in 1960 and 1971, the armed forces of Turkey made good on that commitment, removing governments from power that the military command felt had either deviated too far from the vision of Atatürk , or whose inability to govern threatened the Turkish constitution. Each time, however, the Turkish military served as a shepherd of democracy, giving up power once it had facilitated the transition back to civilian government.
About the Author Scott Ritter A former Marine Corps intelligence officer, Scott Ritter was a chief inspector for the United Nations Special Commission in Iraq from 1991 until 1998. He is the author of several books; “Target Iran,” with a new afterword by the author, was recently released in paperback by Nation Books. For more on Scott Ritter, including his previous Truthdig columns, click here.
The years 1976-1977 were extremely turbulent times to live in Turkey. Leftist groups protested in the streets, and right-wing “Gray Wolf” gunmen carried out targeted assassinations. Being nearby when a Turkish general was gunned down in front of your apartment (as happened to one of my friends as he was coming home from school) or watching a pistol-brandishing “Gray Wolf” charge after your school bus, only to be gunned down by Turkish police (as I myself witnessed) might have been the stuff of adolescent adventure, but it was symptomatic of an underlying instability which had gripped Turkey, and which the military could no longer stomach. In 1980 the Turkish military once again stepped in, throwing out yet another failed civilian government in the name of defending the mandate of Mustafa Kemal.
The decade of the ‘70s saw other political turbulence as well. Turkey, in addition to being a staunch NATO ally of the United States, also served as part of what was then known as the Central Treaty Organization, or CENTO. Organized in 1955 as a means of containing Soviet influence in the Middle East, CENTO was comprised of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan. A military coup in Iraq in 1958 prompted the withdrawal of Baghdad from the organization, and the CENTO headquarters was moved to Ankara, where it was maintained until 1979. CENTO never really accomplished much as an organization (Iraq, after withdrawing, initiated close military ties with the Soviet Union). The refusal of CENTO to go to the aid of Pakistan during its 1965 and 1971 wars with India frayed the fabric of the treaty relationship, and Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus in 1974 likewise strained an organization which was failing in its ostensible role of containment of Soviet power. By 1970, the Soviet Union had thousands of troops in Egypt, a naval facility in Syria and strengthened military ties with Iraq and Yemen. The fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979 represented the death knell for CENTO, and it was formally abandoned that year.
One of the main reasons CENTO never succeeded is that its mission was really nothing more than an extension of a unilateral American policy of Soviet containment. Other than showing support for the United States, there was never any real value to CENTO’s membership. The ultimate testimony to the failure of the CENTO mission is found in an examination of the four regional powers that comprised its original membership. Iraq has been invaded and occupied by the United States. Pakistan is in a life-or-death struggle with extreme Islamic fundamentalists brought on by its support of the American decision to invade Afghanistan and oust the Taliban government in Kabul. Iran remains in the cross hairs of the United States, with a policy of regime change in Tehran openly embraced by policymakers in Washington. Of the four charter regional members, only Turkey remains as a staunch ally of the United States, and yet even this time-honored relationship is being severely tested by American unilateralism.
One of the major challenges facing Turkey in the period after the 1980 military coup was the need for radical political and economic reform. The Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988 severely impacted the Turkish economy, as two of its largest trading partners were effectively nullified by conflict. Increasing difficulties with the Kurdish minority in Turkey manifested in guerrilla warfare and the declaration of martial law in Turkey’s eastern provinces and likewise strained the Turkish nation. The Persian Gulf war of 1991 against Iraq and the subsequent decade of economic sanctions against Iraq also retarded normal economic development. By 2002, however, internal reforms had progressed to the point that Turkey was turning the corner on issues such as inflation, trade balance and debt payment. Critical to the success of Turkish reforms were stable trade relations with Iran, a reduction of ethnic Kurdish violence and a normalization of trade relations with Iraq. Considerable assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) also played a significant role.